Halloween Horror Week: #Horror (2015)

(This was originally written in 2016 for a website that is no longer online. In honor of Halloween, I’m posting it here.)

“You little bitches are capable of anything,” snarls a menacing Dr. White (Timothy Hutton), at his daughter Cat’s alleged friends after she disappeared into the woods. Cat (Haley Murphy) had been kicked out of Sofia’s (Bridget McGarry) sleepover. The girls shrink from him in fear, suddenly vulnerable 12-year-olds again.

But it’s not so much Dr. White the girls should fear as each other. As alliances keep shifting, the bullies become the bullied to tragic results.

To be quite honest about it, Tara Subkoff’s #Horror is a mess. I love that it’s a movie dominated by women, from the director, most of the creative team and the vast majority of the cast, but it’s mostly atmosphere hung around the thinnest of plots (which, upon reflection, doesn’t make too much sense) and characters who are barely there (Sam, played by Sadie Seelert, is our last girl, but we know little about her beyond she had trouble at her other school that “got bad”). But there’s something compelling about Subkoff’s vision and take on this material that transforms it into something beautiful and frantic.

Everything starts innocently enough, overall. The girls raid Sofia’s mom’s wardrobe to play dress up, trying on fancy dresses and furs and expensive jewelry. They constantly take photos of each other on their cell phones and post them online, hoping for likes. But the cracks in the fun quickly appear as the girls seem more and more willing to tear each other down. The problem isn’t social media and obsession with living online – although that contributes to it – so much as it is each other.

Some of the most painful parts – the most horrific, if you will, in a movie that doesn’t have too many solid scares – don’t have anything to do with blood or murders. It’s the casual way the girls insult each other. They make fun of Sam’s (alleged) bad breath and her lack of wealth. They make fun of Georgie’s (Emma Adler) weight. They call Francesca (Mina Sundwall) a lesbian. Even an intimate period of confessions provides ammunition for the girls to use against each other.

Sofia kicks Cat out for making fun of Georgie’s weight, even when the rest of them were happily playing along (“Nothing is mean if you laugh,” Cat protests). It’s less about Cat’s cruelty and more about Sofia trying to keep her status as the group leader. The power plays are constant as each girl wants to prove she deserves to be on top.

When the bloodshed begins to happen, it feels evitable (plus, you’re watching a movie called #Horror, so there should be some of that, at least). There’s not much mystery as to who our killer is, and the violence is brief and understated (although Francesca’s death – as she leaves bloody handprints on the inside of a glass-enclosed tennis court, begging for help – is heart-wrenching because it’s a glimpse at just how much of a child she actually is).

This a world where adults are ineffectual. Chloë Sevigny, as Sofia’s mother, Alex, is the worst kind of “cool mom,” taking a tumbler of vodka to her 12-step meeting. Dr. White, as much as he scares the girls, is basically powerless. Sofia’s father (Balthazar Getty) is killed before the credits. Sam’s mom (Natasha Lyonne) tries to be understanding but can’t quite grasp Sam’s desire to fit in. Even if the adults were paying attention to their daughters’ lives, there’s an implication they wouldn’t be able to do much. Being a 12-year-old girl means you’re in a secret world. Adults aren’t going to understand because they can’t.

Subkoff and cinematographer Learan Kahanov have a great vision for #Horror – the movie is chilly whites, blacks and browns with pops of red (a car, a lamp, a projected film, and of course, blood). The violent, jarring animations by Tabor Robak, representing the online world are a powerful contrast to the naturalistic, wintry setting the rest of the movie takes place. Hallucinatory sequences – a pulsating egg yolk in a work of art, eyes that move in paintings, Sam’s vision of a flood of blood pouring in the pool – lend the movie a much more artistic feel. Musician EMA’s score is one part John Carpenter and one part Philip Glass (although not quite as great as either). One of my favorite sequences really has little to do with the rest of the movie – it’s the girls in fur coats and strange masks dancing in a room with forest wallpaper in the background. It’s something girls at a sleepover would do, but the effect is both innocent and sinister.

And while it was different circumstances, after watching #Horror, I thought about the 2014 “Slender Man stabbing” in Waukesha, Wis., where two 12-year-old girls attacked one of their friends. I remember people expressing confusion about the level of violence these two girls could commit.

Not me. I was once a 12-year-old girl and I’m incredibly grateful there wasn’t really the internet back then, much less cell phones. But ask any 12-year-old girl – current or former — what she thinks. To paraphrase Dr. White, we were capable of anything.